Three years ago, Army Spc. Joseph Bushling took a midnight drive and vanished.
Today, no answers have emerged from the dust in a case that has baffled law enforcement, military officials and his family. Last week, in the midst of the silence, Bushling’s parents filed a court petition to have him declared legally dead.
“Not having closure for the family is very, very traumatic, and I think it also has a play on the volunteers and the people who have gone out and looked for him,” said Tooele County Sheriff Frank Park.
Early in the morning of May 8, 2011, Bushling, a 26-year-old medic who had been stationed at Dugway Proving Ground since October 2009, borrowed a friend’s white Mitsubishi Lancer for a drive in the desert before he transferred to Fort Carson, Colo., later in the day.
That evening, he called a fellow soldier and said he had run out of gas and had lost his flip-flops while walking back to Dugway west of Granite Mountain, located about 35 miles west of Dugway’s main gate. He also asked the fellow soldier for a ride home from a gate. But Bushling never made it.
Searches by military personnel and drones, deputies from the Tooele County Sheriff’s Office, and members of Tooele County Search and Rescue, though hindered by cool, rainy weather, found nothing.
Almost a week later, on May 14, a member of Tooele County Search and Rescue, on a drive to Dugway Mountain located south of Dugway’s borders, noticed a car matching the Lancer’s description. Inside the car, deputies found divorce papers between Bushling and his wife, a GPS, two camelbacks with water in them and a canteen, along with other assorted items.
According to a report of the search of the vehicle, the responding deputy did not find any indication that there was foul play at the scene. Deputies used a winch to get the car, which was tipping down into a ravine, onto level ground, and it was towed back to Dugway. Additionally, an Arkansas Razorbacks hat, identified as being Bushling’s, was found down the steep mountain road a few miles — also the only place in the area searchers could find a cell signal.
Searchers turned their attention to Dugway Mountain. Twenty members of the search and rescue team and three search dog teams convoyed out to the remote area on May 15, aided by more than 20 searchers from Dugway. Fifteen of the Tooele County searchers returned the next day, as well as the Dugway searchers and drones. Teams checked every one of the mineshafts that they found, and looked in and around all of the cabins in various stages of decay. Other teams covered more ground on ATVs, looking for anything that might look like it was recently touched by human hands.
The next weekend, 30 members of search and rescue, combined with 16 searchers from Dugway, looked again for signs of the missing soldier, as well as a helicopter from the Utah Department of Public Safety. Dugway units also checked their own turf.
Searches outside Dugway continued for the next two weeks, with trained eyes and amateurs alike, scouring as many nooks and crannies of the mountain as they could find. None of the manpower, the drones, the military-grade gadgets turned up any clues to Bushling’s whereabouts.
Dugway Mountain is a formidable landmass. The road to where the Lancer Bushling was driving is long and twisted, at times narrow, and with little shoulder to separate a car from a steep drop below.
Park said although Bushling had called and said he was out of gas, rather than stuck, he believes Bushling may have run out of gas as he tried to free the vehicle.
“Being out of gas was not the reason he was there. It was because he was stuck,” Park said. “He may have been there for a while and spun the tires. He may have used the gas to try to get out.”
Dugway’s Caleo Gate and fence line is clearly visible from the path that snakes up Dugway Mountain’s north side. The weather when Bushling disappeared was cold and wet, but between the scattered cabins — some still in habitable shape — and mineshafts, there are plenty of places for a person to seek shelter in a storm.
Bushling had been an avid hunter and outdoorsman in his native Arkansas, and had talked often with fellow soldiers about “going off the grid,” according to reports. He was said to have known the area around Dugway well. His father, Kevin Bushling, flew out to Dugway early on to weigh in on how his son might have reacted when cold and walking with little to no footware.
In maps of the efforts taken by Tooele County Search and Rescue alone, dots pinpointing the GPS location of the searchers, updated every minute or when elevation changes sharply, reduce the satellite view of the mountain to a near blanket of blue. More than 30,000 dots were put on the map in those first three weeks of searching alone.
Active efforts were suspended at the end of May, though another search was organized in June and another in October. Kevin Bushling and Bushling’s mother, Lisa, engaged in their own searches of the area in May and August.
In March 2012, 10 months after his son disappeared, the Bushling family recruited the Jon Francis Foundation, a nonprofit organization advocating improved search and recovery of missing persons. Between the group, members of search and rescue and Dugway personnel, searchers again descended on Dugway Mountain, some on foot, some on ATV, some on horseback and some holding leashes of cadavar-sniffing dogs.
But again, no trace of Joseph Bushling was found.
Park said the disappearance has been one of great frustration to him, his deputies and search and rescue, both because of the strange nature of the case and its persistent lack of resolution despite every available resource being used.
“It was really difficult. It was one of the only things we’ve done with that type of manpower that hasn’t turned up anything,” he said. “I did feel good about the fact that every one of the outside agencies that came in and looked at what we had done said there was nothing else we could have done.”
Since June 2011, a month after he disappeared, Bushling has been categorized as a deserter, as per Army classifications of a soldier who is absent from his duty for 30 or more days and for whom there is no indication of death or foul play.
According to Dugway Public Affairs Thursday, no one — not Dugway’s police, the military installation’s Judge Advocate General’s Office or its counterintelligence office — has gotten any new information or heard even rumors of what might have happened to Bushling. Routine law enforcement checks into Bushling’s bank accounts show no activity after his disappearance.
In March 2012, Kevin Bushling admitted his son had recently been under a lot of strain — aside from his divorce. Bushling’s brother had committed suicide a few months before his midnight drive and he was not looking forward to his pending transfer. However, Kevin Bushling said he did not believe his son was suicidal, or a deserter.
On April 30, Kevin and Lisa Bushling filed a petition in 3rd District Court to declare their son legally dead. Calls to the Bushlings this week were not returned by press time.
Park said the case remains open in his office, if inactive. Maybe one day, he said, they’ll get to close it.
“To this day, we haven’t closed anything. [His last location] is in a part of the desert that people go out and play in. That’s how we found the car — it was a member of search and rescue, but he was just out with his father, playing,” Park said. “I hope that someday we do come across the remains so that the family can have closure. You never know.”